Pillars: Marks of Good Theology
It would be unwise for us to end our preliminary discussion of theology by simply defining theology on the basis of what it is not (see Pitfalls); thus it is prudent for us to add marks that define what a good theology looks like. A biologist might begin a discussion about a bumble-bee by explaining the differences that it has with a wasp or a hornet, but until the characteristics of what does make a bumble-bee a bumble-bee are known, the student will still be at a loss to identify a genuine one out in the wild with any mark of surety. Thus, we lay before us key elements that are marks of a good theology, and though they may not be exhaustive, such elements are so fundamentally necessary to good theology that no good theology can exist without the things we will mention below.
It Must be Biblically-Accurate:
Though this may seem to be a rather obvious first mark, the presence of many bad theological strains in our culture demands that this principle be laid before us. How may a God who is infinite be known apart from the way he reveals himself to his creatures? Ultimately, while God has revealed many of his characteristics in nature, it is only when we come to his divine word that we find the complete and perspicuous revelation of his being. Ultimately, God has revealed himself in his Son, Jesus Christ, and the Bible is a book that is eminently about Jesus Christ. Though our place in this introductory chapter is not to defend the plenary inerrancy of scripture, that position will be stated and defended vigorously in the chapter on Prolegomena, let it suffice to be said here, that the things which come directly from God—that are “God breathed”—are incapable of being at fault. Thus, for a theology to not be scripturally accurate is defeating the purpose of doing theology at all. Good “God talk” must be consistent with the “talk” that God has uttered about himself from on high.
One final note about a theology that is Biblically Accurate: there is always some degree of proof-texting that is done when doing any kind of theology. We will always cite this verse or that group of verses in support of this position or another. If done well, this adds a level of credibility to theological arguments as it always reminds the reader that the theologian is not the authority upon which a particular argument stands or falls—but scripture is. Yet, when proof-texts are taken out of their context, they can be made to mean things that they are not stating at all. Careful exegesis must be done before any proof-text should be used or considered valid; one must always endeavor to understand any given text in the broader context of the larger argument or passage that it is a part of, in the context of the particular book that it is located within, and in the context of the other writings by said author. In addition, Even a book’s location within the revealed canon of scripture must be taken into account as well as scriptural teaching as a whole. D.A. Carson is fond of reminding his students, “A text taken out of its context is a pretext for a proof-text.”
It Must Accurately Describe the World Around Us:
As we will discuss further in the section on Prolegomena, God has revealed himself not only in the scriptures but also in the created world. Certainly God’s word, being the revelation of an inerrant God, is the lens through which we must view the world around us; to do otherwise would be foolish. God’s revelation of himself in creation is mediated through our senses and through our understanding—both of which can be demonstrated again and again to be fallible; God’s word is not. At the same time, God has given us reasonable minds with which we can study the world around us. We can observe through our senses, recognizing that though there is a significant degree of error within our sensory observation, we do live in a world with a benevolent God who does not play tricks upon our senses. Thus, the theology that we have must be consistent with the things in God’s created order that we can observe, though recognizing that there are limits upon our senses and that there are no limits upon God’s senses.
For example, when many of us were younger, particularly if we attended a government-run school, we were taught by our teachers that Christopher Columbus discovered that the world was round and that prior to Columbus’ discovery, most people still believed that the earth was flat and that we were capable of falling off the edge of the earth if we sailed too far. Though many of my Elementary School teachers passionately affirmed this falsehood, it simply was not true. The Pythagoreans, more than 2000 years before Columbus, had demonstrated mathematically that the earth was round and had even estimated its diameter with a fair degree of accuracy. Now, when my young mind was first confronted with this truth by a mathematician and scientist, I had a choice to make: do I believe my elementary school teacher or do I believe one who is a trained authority on these particular matters. The answer was obvious: I submitted my previous knowledge to the teaching of one who was an authority in his field. In the same way, is not God the ultimate authority on the creation that he has brought into being? When there is potential for our own errors in observation, ought we not submit ourselves to the teaching of one who is the authority on every subject? Thus God, in his word, provides us with a lens through which we can see and properly understand the world—yet there is still a world out there that we are looking at. As mentioned above, we must not do theology “in a vacuum;” rather, when doing theology, we must always understand it in reference to how it relates to life and the world that God has created around us.
It Must be God-Centered:
This principle is the counter-point to the mark of a bad theology, that of man-centeredness, that was mentioned above. Theology must always be God-talk and not man-talk. Scripture begins with the words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” There can be no doubt that the scriptures begin with the assumption that God exists and that he is primary over his creation. Of course, were there no God, there would be no revelation in scripture, and then the Bible itself would be the greatest farce ever perpetrated by men, for the Bible itself claims to be God’s word, not men’s. Thus, our theology must always reflect the glory and majesty of the one who created us and must genuinely be speaking of the one true God.
It Must be Christ Centered:
As mentioned above, the scriptures also are given for the purpose of pointing toward, speaking of, and proclaiming the glory of Jesus Christ: God the Son. All of the Old Testament points toward Jesus and all of the New Testament is a result of Jesus’ work, or, as the Apostle Paul records it, “All of God’s promises (speaking of the Old and New Testaments) find their yes in Him.” The answer that scripture presents to all of the problems of man is Christ and him crucified. It is through Christ that our sins are atoned for; it is through Christ that God becomes propitious towards believers; it is by Christ that we are brought into the presence of God the Father and adopted as sons and daughters, as the church, being made the very bride of Christ. It is through Christ that we know the true meaning of sacrificial love and it is only when we observe the majesty of Christ that we can understand what is genuinely beautiful and pleasant in this world. It is in Christ Jesus that we can find peace and hope not only for this life, but for all eternity. It is in Jesus that we can finally find meaning for our lives and freedom from the bondage that sin places us in. It is in Christ that we become “blessed,” and any theology that does not prominently present Jesus Christ is a theology that has no value to the lives of men and women, who ultimately need him more than they need life itself. Good theology is centered on Christ.
It Must be Doxological:
The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins by asking the question: “What is the chief end of man?” In other words, “What is mankind’s reason for being on earth?”, or more succinctly, “What is the meaning of life?” The answer that the catechism brings forth is, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” What a wonderful statement! While philosophy sends many a man on lifelong and frustrated quests to try and discern the meaning of life, the catechism presents an answer that is so simple that a child can understand it and yet so profound that it will take a lifetime to live it out and enjoy its implications. And this is the purpose for which man was created—to glorify God with the aim of enjoying him eternally.
Jonathan Edwards loved to deliberately misquote this catechism question. “What is God’s chief end?” Edwards would ask. The answer? “To glorify himself with the aim of bringing us to enjoy him forever.” Some have suggested that such a stance would be rather an arrogant one on the part of God, yet, in all of God’s manifold perfections, is he not worthy of all praise? Indeed, do we not find the greatest pleasure in life by enjoying God fully? If God is infinitely satisfied in himself, and he is, can we not also be infinitely satisfied in him? When we center our theology on God’s Triune person, our theology cannot help but be doxological.
The bottom line is that if your theology does not drive you to worship God in all of his fullness and majesty, it is not a good theology at all. Heaven is described as being a place where believers, surrounded by creation and myriads upon myriads of the heavenly host, will be wonderfully and gloriously singing praises to God on high and to the Lamb. If we are not finding our ultimate joy in worship here in this world, what does that say about our hope for an afterlife? Has the fall made us so schizophrenic that we will want then what we detest in this life? May it never be said! As a believer, the fullness of our joy in this life and the next must come through worship, and if our theology does not aid us in that end, our theology falls woefully short of its goal.
It Must be Both Eschatological and Protological:
Good theology must be both eschatological in that it anticipates the return of Jesus Christ and protological in that it looks backwards to see God’s hand ordaining the events of history. God is the God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and we must never lose sight of the fact that he is a God who has demonstrated his might in the events of history. He has raised empires and he has crushed them into the dust and God has given us his word through history so that we might understand all that he has done. To forget this is to live in denial of the greater portion of God’s revealed word. At the same time, we are not to be a people who always are looking backwards, but we are to be a people of anticipation, looking forward to the great culmination of history in the second coming of Jesus Christ. The scriptures themselves close with the promise of Christ, “Behold, I am coming soon!” Our theology must reflect the truth of that great promise. In a sense, we are to be people always actively engaged with the tasks of the day, yet with one hand looking to the sky, wondering and waiting, when our Lord will return as he left us.
It Must be Ecclesiastical:
Christians are not to find themselves as believers in isolation from one another. As appealing as that may sound at times, given that sometimes other believers are the ones who can drive us mad, God has ordained that we are part of one church—one body in Christ Jesus. Though we may constitute many parts based on our giftings and backgrounds, we are meant to understand ourselves as interconnected with other believers—rejoicing together and weeping together during the highs and lows of life. All of this has one great and wonderful end, when the Church, described as the bride of Christ, is presented to her groom as one, unified, clean, and perfect whole, and all to the glory of God. John sums up this principle in his first letter, when he writes that our fellowship with one another is what “makes our joy complete.” Our theology must reflect that sense of a believer’s connectedness with other believers.
It Must Encourage Sanctification:
By piety I mean that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires. For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that nought is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience; nay, unless they place their entire happiness in him, they will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity.
In the fall, we not only found ourselves separated from our intimate communication with God, but the image of God, the Imago Dei, within us was warped. In God’s wonderful graciousness, he loves his people so ddeply that he not only justifies us through the saving blood of Jesus, but he works his Holy Spirit in us to restore the Imago Dei little by little. In other words, God is at work in the lives of believers to change them and to remold them, making their lives more and more reflect that of Jesus Christ. If our theology is not encouraging us to want to be sanctified, if it is not encouraging us to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the work of sanctification, it falls short of its intended goal.
It Must Encompass All of Life:
The final mark of good theology is that it must encompass all of life. Abraham Kuyper once commented that as Sovereign Lord of creation, there was not an inch of the life of man that Christ did not put his finger on and declare, “Mine!” Modern man has a tendency to “compartmentalize” his life, living one way in church and another way before a watching world. Good theology does not allow one to do so. Theology is meant to be applied to all things that we do, and thus unify our life in a meaningful way before the throne of the Lord Jesus Christ. Everything that we do in one area or venue of life has an impact on what we do in every other area of life and our theology must be the thing that governs it all. Our theology must also engage both our hearts and our minds as well, challenging us to shape our very lives according to God’s revealed word. God is perfect by the very definition of who he is; should we not expect that he can perfectly order our steps? Indeed, that is the kind of God we have and that is the kind of God that our theology should always reflect.
It is worth noting that in the Old Testament alone, “thus says the Lord” is uttered more than 600 times. God is without question a God who talks to man—it is in the fall, though, that we lost the intimacy of that talk being face-to-face—something that Jesus came to undo.
Though little is known about the actual man, Pythagoras, the Pythagorean school was established in Samos, of southern Italy, about the year 525 B.C. Pythagoras was reportedly Ionian by heritage, having moved to Italy, and there is documentation that his disciples traveled as far as India, perhaps influencing their idea of reincarnation.
In 1643, a group of more than one hundred preachers and theologians representing the Scottish church, the Anglican church, and the Separatists, met in Westminster Abbey to begin what would be a five year discussion, endeavoring to articulate a concise statement of Biblical Doctrine. In 1649 the first edition of what are known as the Westminster Standards were published, complete with longer and shorter catechisms for the training of youth and directories for the application of this doctrine to life. Though different denominations have made many revisions of this doctrine over the years, the original language has rarely been improved upon, but has simply been nuanced to fit a particular denominational preference.
Edwards was one of the most influential American theologians of the 18th century, and along with George Whitefield, the English, Methodist preacher, paved the way for the first “Great Awakening” in America.
Much theological confusion comes as a result of people ignoring one or both of these aspects. We must look to the future, but at the same time remember that an understanding of the imagery that is employed to speak of the future is found rooted in the Old Testament. The book of Revelation, in other words, cannot be understood apart from the prophets in the Old Testament Canon. At the same time, the Old Testament cannot be properly understood unless it is understood in light of the revealing of Christ in the New Testament. How many Jewish scholars lay frustrated because they are unwilling to see this great truth!